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How to curb loneliness and increase happiness using social media

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Ever find yourself mindlessly scrolling through social media, seeing all your friends but still feeling lonely? Duke researchers are working to combat digital loneliness—with another social media app.

The Center for Advanced Hindsight—an applied behavioral science research center at Duke—is partnering with a new social media app called Wisdo to better understand how online platforms can contribute to more positive online engagement. Duke's analysis into Wisdo contributes to the Center’s larger mission to conduct research that has a direct impact on people’s lives, especially in promotion of healthy behaviors. 

The challenge to create more authentic spaces online was taken up by the entrepreneurs behind Wisdo, an app that helps people connect with others who have had similar life experiences. 

“Through the study, we would like to gain some kind of causal information around how social integration and isolation translate into healthy behaviors,” said Julia O’Brien, research project manager at the Center for Advanced Hindsight. “We then hope to learn how to design certain kinds of social media platforms that have positive benefits to social integration and can reduce loneliness.” 

The app lets the user choose an experience they are living through, whether it be depression, motherhood or coming out as LGBTQ+, and it connects them with others with the same story. It allows users to see a list of steps that other people have taken to address what they've been through, join group chats or connect with other users individually. 

User profiles on Wisdo show the number of experiences and the number of steps they share with others. This connection creates an immediate affinity between two people who have never met, said Boaz Gaon, Wisdo CEO and co-founder.

“When you’re facing a meaningful life event, something that changes your world, you don’t know what you don’t know. The knowledge that you need is not going to be found in books or on Google—it’s going to be found in the memories and experiences of people who’ve walked in your shoes,” Gaon said.

Recent studies have shown that almost half of Americans experience loneliness and that increased social media use in young people is linked with feeling socially isolated. However, research by Jenna Clark—senior behavioral researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight—into technologically-mediated social interactions has shown that online connection can be positive, but the way most people presently use social media does not contribute to meaningful connection. 

However, Clark emphasized that the ways in which people use technology must be further examined. 

In what researchers have termed “social snacking,” many people passively scroll through the lives of others, a behavior that is not conducive to intimate relationship-building. For online interactions to build positive relationships and decrease loneliness, Clark said that they must facilitate reciprocated, genuinely connected experiences. 

“When you’re browsing your newsfeed, observing everyone else’s happy outward posed image of themselves, you’re not actually sharing back with that person one-on-one or even with a group about your own experience in an authentic way,” O’Brien said. “You end up getting a one-sided view of other people’s lives, and everyone is sharing the best image of themselves online, and so you don't have anything that resembles a normal human interaction.”

Emerging apps like Wisdo are attempting to create online experiences which actively encourage deeper interpersonal connections rather than detract from them. 

“The paradigm that we were stuck on is that we want to be connected to as many people as we can. That was the big novelty—you can find and connect to anyone on Earth. And you’re measured by how many friends you have and how many followers you have. I think what’s happened since is that people are less and less interested in quantity of connections and more interested in the quality of those connections,” Gaon said. 

Rather than being valued by how many likes or followers they have, users on Wisdo are ranked by how helpful they are. Users not only receive help, but they can also help others. The more you help others, the higher you will be ranked by the platform, Gaon explained.

“That’s so psychologically satisfying to users, and they feel happier and more resilient," Gaon said. "It’s a beautiful thing to see.” 

Through analysis of user data, Gaon and colleagues found that being in college is correlated with experiencing anxiety. The Wisdo team decided to launch a college outreach project to investigate this correlation. 

“I think what we’re seeing from the data, primarily from the U.S. and the U.K., is that when people get to college, the network that used to provide comfort and support is removed,” Gaon said. “And the college culture doesn’t necessarily promote understanding and support or expressions of fear, hurt and difficulty."

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